It never fails to amaze me what we sometimes find, historically, was located in our neighborhoods.
DNAInfo NY recently published an article, “MAP: Discover the Hidden History of New York’s First Sex Districts.” In addition to a history of prostitution in 19th century New York City, the article features an interactive map. The map identifies the brothel locations based on pocket guide books for gentlemen seeking female “companionship” from that century. This map also offers other information including the proprietess’ names, types of brothel and, in some cases, a review. We took a closer look at the ones shown in Greenwich Village.
The world’s oldest profession has a long history in this country, as well as in this city. In the early 19th century, many brothels were located in Five Points and along the East River. By the middle of that century, the city’s first sex district developed in what is today SoHo, and by 1870, houses of ill-repute were scattered throughout Greenwich Village, with concentrations southeast of Washington Square Park and along 13th Street. These unofficial red-light districts would continue to move northward in Manhattan throughout the 19th century, following the wealthy clientele and businesses. A second large, concentrated sex district developed in Chelsea following the Civil War; the elevated rail that brought women to shop along Ladies Mile during the day would also bring their husbands in the evenings to shop for other entertainment (source).
Prostitution at this time was not considered illegal. By the mid-19th century it had moved out of the slums, and was operated out of ‘parlor houses’ — higher-class brothels employing a small number of women, featuring private entrances that could only be accessed by men with appointments. Gentlemen seeking these houses could find their locations through pocket guidebooks such as the “Fast Man’s Directory and Lover’s Guide to the Ladies of Fashion and Houses of Pleasure in New York and other Cities” from 1853, or the “Gentleman’s Companion” from 1870.
110 Clinton Place (present day 8th Street) was a parlor house which was, according to its review in the “Gentleman’s Companion,” “a first class parlor house, with five lady boarders who are sociable and entertaining.” Another house type listed in the guide books was assignation houses. These houses provided furnished rented rooms for unmarried couples or men looking to spend a short period of time with a prostitute they met elsewhere. At 30 West 12th street, according to the “Gentleman’s Companion,” one would find “a house of assignation furnished in magnificent style. It is a first class house, in which the best accommodations are provided for visitors. It is very quiet and orderly.” Were the patrons really that concerned about the furnishings? “Directory to the Seraglios” from 1859 described 3 East 11th Street thusly: “This is a very fashionable house, conducted in good style. The landlady is agreeable. Her lady boarders are beautiful. Need we say more.”
Not all of the houses received favorable reviews. Of 16 East 13th Street, whose proprietess was Laura Howard, a widow, the reviewer said: “There are six lady boarders; but no interest whatever attaches to this house. Some of its visitors have asserted that its inmates are of a snobbish disposition.” This stretch of East 13th Street had several parlor houses or houses of assignation, including Nos. 16, 18, 20, 24 and 26. Looking at the 1870 Federal Census, the profession of the proprietesses was listed simply as “keeping house” and the ladies were either listed as domestic servants or nothing was listed. With one exception, all were U.S. born.
The Bleecker Street and Washington Square red light district was once an area of wealth and glamour in Manhattan. By the 1870s, however, most of the mansions were transformed into stores and saloons. Considered the “bohemian quarter of Gotham,” the Bleecker Street and Washington Square area was populated by artists and musicians. Brothels and prostitution were prominent in this area for decades. Many of the houses of prostitution formed ethnic specializations that mirrored the nearby immigrant population. For instance, Bleecker Street and Washington Square was home to the “Frenchtown” brothel, Italian brothels, and “Negro Alley.” At 59 Bleecker Street the parlor house known as “Le Paris” did business.
Up at 40 Amity Street (today West 3rd Street), Mrs. Ann Beach, also a widow, ran a house of assignation which according to the 1870 “Gentleman’s Companion” was “a first-class house of assignation. It is very nicely furnished, the house is always open, and Mrs. Beach gives her personal attention to visitors so that they may miss nothing which is required for their comfort and entertainment.” Apparently gentlemen were not the only members of the populace serviced. 372 4th Street received this review: “She (the proprietess) conducts a very quiet house, which is a fine resort for private young ladies to go to anticipate the pleasures of matrimony.”
Following 1870, social reform societies such as the Society for the Suppression of Vice would challenge the presence of red light districts and brothels throughout New York City. In spite of this, prostitution remained lucrative and pervasive until the 1920’s when it would go underground due in part to progressive reform laws.